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ZACKS ARGUES THAT LEAR’S ZEAL to get a treaty before military action could have forced the Bashaw’s hand was due to Lear’s desire to get the credit for freeing the American captives. As a result, the United States agreed to give the Bashaw $60,000 and some prisoners of war in exchange for the crew of the Philadelphia and a treaty in which the United States would not be compelled to pay tribute. (Lear would also, for reasons unknown, heap lavish gifts, at the cost of the U.S. government, on the Bashaw and his advisers.) Eaton was forced to conduct an ignoble secret nighttime evacuation from Derne of his Marines, European mercenaries, and Hamet’s immediate entourage.
Though it is doubtful that Eaton could have made a successful advance from Derne to Tripoli and unseated the ruling Bashaw, it is certainly true that the capture of Derne put enormous pressure on the Bashaw — pressure that Lear refused to recognize. Eaton may have exceeded his authority in making representations to Hamet of further U.S. support, but he was properly incensed by the U.S. government’s abandonment of Hamet. Lear, at the least, in Eaton’s mind, should have negotiated for the Bashaw to recognize Hamet as the governor of the province of Derne.
Eaton would spend the rest of his life reliving his glory in the desert, fighting to get compensation for the debts he incurred in support of his mission (eventually granted), and to get an increased stipend for the betrayed Hamet. Never good at controlling his emotions, he also failed to curb his gambling and consumption of alcohol. As a result, though still regarded as a hero in his native New England, he became a pathetic figure, and died broke in 1811 at age 47.
Zacks, author of The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd and An Underground Education describes himself as a specialist in “offbeat history.” The Pirate Coast fits his specialty, and, for the most part, he does a fine job unveiling his story with lively writing and some excellent research. Nonetheless, Zacks demonstrates some faults in this book. Seemingly not wanting to waste any bit of his research, he includes all sorts of unnecessary information, ranging from tidbits about Eaton’s great-great-great-grandfather (who helped build the first footbridge across the Charles River in Boston) to a near full-page description of Muslim circumcision practices. He further disrupts the flow of his story with a six-page mini-biography of Tobias Lear, the relevant information in which he could have incorporated with more skill and brevity. Zacks effectively employs details to provide a “you are there” feeling to his narrative, but he occasionally slips into sounding like an historical novelist, inserting likely invented (if unimportant) details in an attempt to create atmosphere.
The faults of The Pirate Coast, however, are outweighed by its virtues. William Eaton’s adventure in the desert is an extraordinary story of fortitude and courage, worthy of greater attention, and Richard Zacks does it justice.
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